Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 3, 2019

Love is Blind, by William Boyd

There’s only one thing to do when it’s too hot to venture outside, and that’s to loaf around with books. I’ve read two today, and I’ve finished William Boyd’s novel that’s been on the bedside table for a day or two.

Boyd (b.1952)  is a Scottish writer with 15 novels to his credit, and he’s a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and an Officier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. He has honorary doctorates in literature from the universities of St. Andrews, Stirling and Glasgow, and was appointed Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 2005 for services to Literature. And while he doesn’t seem to have won any major awards, his early novels in particular attracted attention.  This is the list from his Wikipedia page:

So it was about time I read one of his books!

Love is Blind is a straightforward historical novel, set at the turn of the 19th century.  The narrative is chronological, starting in 1894 when young Brodie Moncur escapes from his tyrannical father to take up an opportunity as a piano tuner in Paris.  This era was a golden age for piano manufacturing and Brodie’s employer Channon wants to compete with Steinway pianos, so he sends Brodie, his most able employee, to set up the branch there, second in command to Channon’s son Calder.  Through a clever scheme to promote the pianos via concert pianists, Brodie meets John Kilbarron (the Scottish Liszt) and fatally, falls for John’s lover Lika Blum, a beautiful Russian soprano. When things go wrong in the Paris branch, Brodie strikes out on his own, and ends up in St Petersburg where John Kilbarron has a wealthy patron who doesn’t seem to mind paying for a piano tuner with not much to do except have assignations with the lovely Lika.

The novel is basically a twin study of obsession.  Brodie is obsessed with Lika, and Brodie’s rival/s are obsessed with vengeance.  Despite his background as the son of a preacher, Brodie’s love life has consisted of transactional sex with prostitutes but he falls passionately in love with the enigmatic Lika.  Everything he does from this point on is predicated on what is obviously a doomed relationship.  The reader can see what Brodie cannot, which is that she is evasive about her past, flirts with Brodie behind Kilbarron’s back, but obviously isn’t as keen on Brodie as he is on her.  And #SpoilerAlert it all ends badly.

IMO Love is Blind is a little long for itself, yet some elements seem unexplained.  I never worked out why Brodie is berated by his father Malky for his dark skin, and kept waiting for a revelation about parental infidelity which (unless I missed it) never came.  I also didn’t understand why Malky’s tirades in his sermon were drawn from biblical passages that didn’t exist.  And where was the explanation for Brodie’s brother turning into a violent drunk?  OTOH some segments were unnecessarily drawn out, and there’s some rather gratuitous writing about the sex habits of people on the Andaman Islands.

These quibbles don’t really matter because the interest lies in Brodie’s passion for Lika and the travails of their relationship.  In this fin-de-siecle period, music and madness take the characters all over Europe, with Brodie trying to escape his father, his employer’s betrayal, his vengeful pursuer and the TB which threatens to kill him if he doesn’t live a stress-free life in a congenial climate.  It’s a bit melodramatic, but that’s the point, I think, to show that obsession is melodramatic.  No one in their right mind would behave the way these characters do, but then, they’re not in their right minds!

There are numerous literary references, but they’re mostly overt, as for example when Brodie reads an article in Harper’s Bazaar about Upton Sinclair’s novel The Jungle. So even if a reader doesn’t know that this is a brilliant book about the exploitation of migrants in turn-of-the-century America, Google will reveal all so that it can be seen that Boyd is linking that book with the exploitation of convict labour on the Andaman Islands in the Indian Empire.

See Alexander Larman’s review at The Guardian and also Tony’s  review at Tony’s Book World. 

Author: William Boyd
Title: Love Is Blind, The Rapture of Brodie Moncur
Publisher: Viking (Penguin Random House UK), 2018, 371 pages
ISBN: 9780241295946
Review copy courtesy of Penguin Random House Australia


Responses

  1. William Boyd has been productive. As a fellow Scot I have considered reading him and have gathered a few of his books thanks to Op Shop browsing. On this review am still not too sure to commit. But as always Lisa your reviews are excellent.

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    • Thanks, Fay:)
      I think this is an enjoyable book, good for relaxing reading at bed time, probably not so great for book groups. (Though I’d be happy to learn that I’m wrong about that from someone who’s enjoyed it in a group).

      Like

  2. It’s been quite a while (more than 10 years?) since I last read anything by this author, but the European fin-de-siecle setting does sound appealing. Do you think you’ll go on to read any of his others?

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    • I think I would, but I wouldn’t go out of my way to find one, just if I saw one of the titles I recognise at the library.

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  3. I think I’ve got one of those little Penguin books of a short story by him – an attempt by me to catch up with people I haven’t read novels by, but I haven’t even read that! I should set myself a goal of reading one of those a week. As if!

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    • I am totally hopeless at achieving reading goals!

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  4. Competent. That is the word for ‘Love is Blind’. I expect more from William Boyd because of his early work.

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    • That I think is what I should read, then. Which one would you recommend?

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      • Actually I would recommend William Boyd’s first novel ‘A Good Man in Africa’, but I’m wondering if the reason I liked that one so much was because Boyd was new and different at that time.

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        • I’ll look out for it, thanks:)

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  5. I’ve read quite a bit of his work, but feel the quality has tailed off a little in more recent novels. Hence I didn’t buy this one. But I wouldn’t rule it out and might give it a go at some point, when the pile of more pressing material goes down a bit (ha!)

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    • *wink* Best not to hold my breath then?

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  6. I had this one sent to me as well for review and mixed reviews from others keep preventing me from actually reading it.

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    • I admit to having had it since August last year…

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  7. I think I’ve read one of his books but I can’t remember which one. (the kiss of death for an author, I know…)

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    • C’est la vie!

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      • C’est toujours la canicule à Melbourne ?

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        • Allumé et éteint. 4 saisons en un jour, disons-nous

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  8. He is a writer whose work I’ve never managed to get to yet either. Although I’ve heard quite a few people speak highly about his capacity to entertain in an easy-but-not-light kind of way. IIRC, his books come up fairly often on BBC’s “Books and Authors” with Harriet Gilbert, where each guest in a trio chooses a favourite book for the other two members to read. (Interesting to hear others here speak to comparisons to his earlier and mid-career writing too.) It does seem a perfect summer reading choice!

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    • Maybe it’s because he’s not really writing about anything significant. I mean, yes, people behave strangely when they obsessed with a love interest. But it’s been done many times before, and even though he does it well, it’s not really an earth-shattering observation, and it’s not an earth-shattering plot.
      So as you say, #TryingNotToSoundDismissive it’s ideal for summer reading. .

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